ALAN WAKE: THE SIGNAL & THE WRITER – Review
ALAN WAKE: THE SIGNAL & THE WRITER are expansions developed by Remedy Entertainment to be downloaded at Xbox Live Arcade for the game ALAN WAKE for the Xbox 360. It was directed by MIKKO RAUTALAHTI and MARKUS MÃ„KI.
Alan Wake is lost again. This time, he’s gone deeper than ever before: inside his own mind. But luckily for him, his mind is inhabited by a terrain he is certainly familiar with: a surreal version of Bright Falls. Both expansions, The Signal and The Writer, are about the same story and one will be incomplete without the other. That being said, they are still distinctively different gameplay-wise. While The Signal has some more interesting combat mechanics, The Writer is focused, has a clearer objective and cooler scenarios. If I were to rate them separately (although that doesn’t make much sense (more on that later)), I would say The Signal is schlock but The Writer is good.
The main problem with The Signal is its general lack of direction. Alan will spend the entire game following Thomas Zane’s signal. And what is that signal? Why, it is merely the same yellow marker you always had showing at the HUD radar in the original game. Nothing else. Curiously, it is The Writer, and not The Signal, the expansion with more evident signal/goal, and one that actually affects the gameplay: in it, Alan must race to a lighthouse that is always standing unreachable at a nebulous distance. Nevertheless, The Signal expansion benefits from the superb combat mechanics from Alan Wake as well as some tasty new ideas.
There are no more manuscripts this time. Instead, a furious, demented version of Alan Wake narrates what is about to happen. He appears inside TV screens scattered throughout the game; always right before an enemy encounter. This makes the game feels formulaic and doesn’t leave any time for the player to enjoy any suspense. This is a huge and obvious blunder as the original game greatly benefitted from the expectation created by the information conveyed in the manuscript. Hitchcock’s Bomb Theory states that 15 minutes of suspense is better than 15 seconds of surprise; these extra chapters, on the other hand, offer no time between the threat playing on the TV screen and the actual attack. It traded Hitchcock’s 15 minutes for less than 5 seconds. However, this is somewhat counterbalanced by the top-notch acting of this TV Alan, which uses the real actor after whose face Alan Wake is modelled and it’s enjoyable by itself.
This version of Alan Wake, and not the Alan Wake you control, is who is in command. He is the voice of Wake’s creativity, his art; and he becomes more aggressive, sadistic and insane as Wake follows the (rather lame) signal. He also makes Alan’s self-loathing evident. In fact, as the game takes place inside Alan’ own psyche, this self-loathing is apparent in a number of other ways, like when Alan’s own books and words start hunting him.
Too apparent, perhaps. The expansions end up working as dictionaries, spelling out what all the original game’s metaphors were, explaining away every tiny bit of symbolism, while leaving no room for second guessing or ambiguity. In my original review, I’ve said I thought this eagerness for people to get it was condescending and I still do. The developer’s lack of confidence in its audience annoys me. However, I admit that, for the ones that didn’t notice these meanings in the first game, the expansions’ need explicit such themes might make them reevaluate the original game. Wake himself doesn’t appear to be interested in those explanations.
From the two expansions, I felt The Signal to be the inferior one. It brings some clever new ideas like a minefield of words and a graveyard of light poles, but there is no story, no plot. It is mostly a diffused and fragmented journey outside the borders of time and space and, because of that, there is little reward to be gain after surviving a difficult battle outside the occasional Barry joke, the next threat being described by TV Alan and another battle. The Writer, on the other hand, despite its main flaw of requiring the player to rely on Alan’s awful jumping mechanics (Mr. Wake is no sportsman and it shows), has some more interesting set pieces and more exposition to Alan’s memories. However, it was only after playing both expansions back to back, that I realized how natural this setup actually was, for it illustrates Alan’s state of being.
This is the main criticism I have: there is no reason for this special feature not to be sold together as a single DLC, more condensed and concise. In fact, by selling the separately, we lose track of how each expansion completes the other. Take Alan himself, for example. In The Signal, Alan is pretty much pissed off, blowing off steam at Thomas Zane and making petulant remarks to Barry, while in The Writer, Alan is calmer and more collected so that he finally is able to handle its own psyche at the final act. There is, therefore, a progression towards rationality that makes perfect sense , but whose context can be missed if both expansions are not played back to back.
The same goes for the expansion’s environment. While we play inside Alan’s subconsciousness, there is no scenario outside from the sets already familiar to us from the original game. In both The Signal and The Writer, we play among alien recreations of Bright Falls and Alan’s apartment (Remember this, Al?) and one of my problems with The Signal was how everything inside Alan’s mind felt so tangible. Sure, some streets were apparently devoured by fissures a la Silent Hill and you never knew where you were going to be after opening a door, but everything else, the laws of physics, the proportion of objects, etc., felt rather unimaginative. There was the promise of a transaction to more abstract concepts in the final third of The Signal (e.g. the minefield of words), but nothing like the wild surrealism and frantic metaphors of a Psychonauts. In The Writer, however, this transaction is finally fulfilled. Suddenly, planes fall from the sky, you start to walk inside mazes and on walls until all sense of direction is gone, etc. There is an interesting duality going on here: while Alan become more controlled and sensible, the environment becomes wilder and more unpredictable. But again we have the same problem: because there are 2 separate expansions, there is a risk this development and its meaning will pass unnoticed (as it did for me during my first playthrough).
The fact you have no sense of this character development and scenario progression until you start The Writer ends up hurting The Signal, which, for all intents and purposes, feels void of any meaning when played alone. Instead of 2 expansions being sold at 560 MS Points each, I would much rather have a single DLC at a 1200 MS Points, for selling them together would actually benefit the experience.
Make no mistake, though. These expansions won’t make any progress beyond the original game other than explaining where is Alan and what he is doing now. Remedy called them Special Features and rightly so, for it fells more like an extra from a season of a TV series you bought than anything else. These DLCs are not (and thank goodness for that!) like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II and Prince of Persia (2008) that actually feel incomplete without the extra chapters. The expansions, of rather The Writer, will provide a nice link to an Alan Wake sequel (no shameless cliffhangers though) as well as some hints to where the story is headed by acknowledging the couple of moments that left most people scratching their heads during the original game, involving Mr. Scratch and the Clicker.
As much as I love the combat mechanics, there is no denying the flaws inherent to the decision of selling both expansions separate, that’s why I recommend getting them both together or none at all. If you need a lamer reason to skip The Signal, know that it contains a Verizon advertisement. Non-intrusive and non-abusive product placement such as this has never bothered me (in fact, when I dream I’m drinking a Coca-Cola, I am in fact drinking a Coca-Cola and not some generic sweetened carbonated beverage), but I know some fellows so hypersensitive toward games with ads that might even boycott them (one of them claiming to be making a stand for anti-consumerism, while gleefully ignoring his hypocrisy of consuming games with no ads in them). There are people more lost than Alan Wake after all.